Is there any truth in the ancient claim that all politics is local? Councillor Simon Phipps, whose picture adorns this article, very much hopes so. Last night he led a crack team of over 20 Conservatives, drawn from all over the West Midlands, in a bid to hold his seat in Belle Vale, a marginal ward in the highly marginal Metropolitan Borough Council of Dudley.
His troops gathered at six yesterday evening in the car park at the Lutley Oak pub, on a grassy knoll overlooking the main road between Halesowen and Stourbridge. The weather was beautiful and morale among the troops was high, for how else can one fight an election?
Phipps, who is 23 and won the seat when he was 19, arrived in a small car which bore on its door, in white capitals on a blue background, the impeccably local message:
But the national background is atrocious. The Conservative government has broken its promise to implement Brexit, and people in Dudley, a predominantly Leave-voting area, have noticed.
Preliminary research in Stourbridge, three miles down the road, indicated a sense of resigned disgust with politics, and an inclination to say “a plague on all your houses”. Mike Lloyd, 63, who runs the doughnut stall at the end of the High Street, said:
“We’re not going to bother to vote. My missus is that fed up with Brexit. We’ve always voted Conservative, ever since the Margaret Thatcher days, but Brexit is a nightmare, an absolute nightmare. We’d like to just leave on that Friday and tell them all to bugger off.”
Barry Taylor, a retired machine operator, agreed: “I’ve just lost interest now in politics altogether. When we had that vote two years ago, about coming out of Europe, I don’t know why they didn’t just come out there and then.”
A woman who runs a small shop regretted that the High Street has become “dilapidated”, but took a marginally more promising view: “I might still vote Conservative. If I don’t I shan’t vote at all. But a lot of people have had enough now, to the point it just goes over people’s heads and they shut their eyes and ears to it.”
Could Phipps open their eyes and ears? Soon he was running up a suburban street, lined with modest and by no means affluent houses, with a distant view of green and wooded hills, in the hope of persuading sceptical voters to think again.
He called only at houses which earlier canvassing had shown either to be Conservative, or at least to be open to persuasion. Rather ominously, shiny cars were parked outside some of these far from grand houses, but the doors did not open.
When the door did open a crack, one man said: “We’re just having our tea.” Another said, as if this ruled out all political conversation: “I’ve got my grandson with me.”
Some people, mainly women, said they would vote for Phipps, and no one declared an enthusiasm for Labour. Crossness with the political class seems certain to depress the vote for both main parties.
We bumped into the Labour candidate. “Hello Donella,” Phipps said, but no further conversation was possible as she was on her mobile phone. She appeared to be on it alone. Several Tories reported that Labour has not been at all visible during this campaign.
We came to a modest house with a Mercedes parked outside. The owner, who turned out to be a member of the Conservative Party, said: “We’ve got to get rid of the woman because otherwise we’ll have no party left. I’m lost for words.”
He was not, however, lost for words, for he continued: “If she’d got any decency, any self-respect, she’d go.”
Quinn replied: “I’m so passionate for this area. I can’t change the national picture. Honestly, just think about it. It’s a local election.”
He was energetic and articulate in defence of his local record, and knows these streets like the back of his hand. He said he needed to come back and have a longer conversation with this particular voter.
Every fair-minded voter admitted it was unfair to blame Phipps for blunders made at national level. One voter did, however, point out that Phipps is a member of the Conservative Party, so cannot dissociate himself from what it does.
Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands, came into view, moving at speed from house to house. He said: “Good local candidates do champion their way through against any national issues.”
That is doubtless true. But it is also true that national issues are making life far much more difficult for Conservatives fighting tomorrow’s local elections.
Dudley Council went Labour last September, when one Tory, and one Independent, changed sides. To win it back under present circumstances would be a heroic achievement.